The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA have signed a letter of intent to work on a mission to go to Mars, collect soil samples, and return them back to Earth. Such a feat will allow more sophisticated analysis of the Martian rocks than would be possible with a lander or rover. The samples will be kept in pristine condition so that results can be independently verified and new ideas tested when technology improves.
It won’t be easy, but it is possible to do this with just three missions. One rover will collect the samples and store them, another will carry the samples to a lander and place them into a Mars Ascent Vehicle, and finally, a third mission will collect the samples in orbit and take them back to Earth.
Two rovers that can perform such a feat will be on Mars at the beginning of the next decade. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will collect samples in little canisters and at the same time, ESA’s ExoMars rover will drill 2 meters (6.6 feet) below the surface to search for traces of life. The samples will then have to be put on a small rocket, which will be sent into Mars Orbit, collected, and brought back to Earth.
“There is no question that for a planetary scientist, the chance to bring pristine, carefully chosen samples of the Red Planet back to Earth for examination using the best facilities is a mouth-watering prospect," David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, said in a statement. "Reconstructing the history of Mars and answering questions of its past are only two areas of discovery that will be dramatically advanced by such a mission.”
ESA and NASA might have got the ball rolling on this project, but they haven't formed an exclusive partnership. Both agencies are planning to connect and collaborate with other space agencies and private companies.
“The challenges of going to Mars and back demand that they are addressed by an international and commercial partnership – the best of the best," Parker added. "At ESA, with our 22 member states and further cooperating partners, international cooperation is part of our DNA.”
Although there is no fixed schedule for this undertaking, the mission in the works definitely creates the possibility of having pieces of Mars on Earth in the very near future.